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Alex Colville, To Prince Edward Island, 1965. (Detail) (Alex Colville/National Gallery of Canada)
Alex Colville, To Prince Edward Island, 1965. (Detail) (Alex Colville/National Gallery of Canada)

An appreciation: What made Alex Colville’s work so unique? Add to ...

The Canadian art world is mourning the death of master painter Alex Colville.

Colville, who died Tuesday at the age of 92 in Wolfville, N.S., was known for his meticulously crafted, hyper-realistic scenes of everyday life.

Here, Charlie Hill, curator of Canadian Art at the National Gallery of Canada, talks about Colville and his art.

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What made Alex Colville’s work so unique?

I think the emotion, the rigour, the intellectual consistency. I mean, just look from the beginning to the end, there’s a real personality there that emerges from his work, which was I think marked by an intellectual rigour and also by a very consistent and serious vision. The world that he creates is a very internalized world. It’s intense emotion, but very restrained emotion at the same time.

What was his method of painting and why was it so labour-intensive?

Well, there’s a lot that is based on a very strict drawing grid. If you look at the surfaces, how carefully the paint is applied, it’s not something that is done fast, it’s something that’s built up over time. It’s time-consuming. And also, as I say, it’s the intellectual rigour of his work. He was using tempera in the ‘50s and that’s a somewhat unforgiving medium. I think it’s just constantly what you get out of his work is this intellectual rigour and this attention. Things are carefully done.

Critics have noted the sense of unease in his art, and he once said: “Anxiety is the normality of our age.” Why do you make of this tension?

I think it’s very much a post-war phenomenon. He’s a product of his time in that way. I mean, he grows out of the social realism of the ‘30s and ‘40s and he continued to have that social consciousness. But not in a political way, maybe an earlier generation did, but a real consciousness about humanity. He’s a child of the bomb.

What did his choice of subject matter – those routine scenes of everyday life – say about him as an artist?

How much he was attached to it and how much it meant to him. He was an intelligent man who knew what was his passion and carried it through.

Many people know Colville by what was perhaps his most well-known painting, To Prince Edward Island, which shows a woman on a boat looking through binoculars.

Right. It’s in our collection.

Yes. Why is this such a famous painting?

Well, paintings become famous often because they’re often reproduced. And why do people often reproduce them? Because they’re in public collections. But I think it’s one also that just does talk about a very accessible subject matter but one that also just raises questions, as so much of his work does. What is going on? What is the unknown here? But at the same time it’s not threatening, it just raises questions and the intense observation one sees in his work and that he’s able to translate is just so consistent.

How did Colville influence the course of modern art in Canada?

I don’t think he did in that sense. I don’t think that was what he set out to do. I think he just wanted to be honest to himself and he did it so consistently. Yes, there are people who admire him and there are people who are certainly in the school of realism which I think predates him in the Atlantic provinces. One thinks of an earlier generation – Miller Brittain, Fred Ross, Christopher Pratt, who’s, I guess, a bit younger than Colville. But I think that they’re not imitators. They’re all individuals, but working within a tradition, if you will.

Did you know Alex Colville?

Superficially.

What was he like?

Very reserved. Smart. Honest. Straightforward. It’s a great loss. He was an amazing artist and he’s somebody who I respect immensely.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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